I must admit to recoiling when I first heard about equating writing with physical exercise. It reminded me of a man called Johnny Barretto who taught me to play the piano and carried the “without thinking” business too far. I’m referring to the scales you need to learn for several years before you play even the simplest piece. A year passed, and then two. I pleaded with him to let me play at least a simple tune but he wouldn’t, he said, until he thought I was ready. “Practice makes perfect” he used to repeat like a drone.
Not having the stomach of the tortured drummer in Whiplash, I sacked Johnny Barretto at the end of two years, launched into Moonlight Sonata the day he was gone and now, many years later, am a very mediocre pianist.
Johnny Barretto was beginning to kill my passion for the piano. Sometimes I think I escaped from his clutches in good time and sometimes I think it was the biggest mistake I made. It’s a conundrum, and I’m giving you both sides of the picture.
The fact is, if you want to be more than a mediocre writer, you have to be willing to practise till your head and hand hurt and at the same time, hang on to your passion for dear life – passion for writing, passion for the story you want to tell, passion for the people you’re writing about.
You might ask, how do I sustain the passion through the many years it takes to write a book? One way is to not look back too much while writing. “If I started editing my own work during the process of creation,” says novelist and publisher David Davidar, “I wouldn’t get much done. The way I usually work is to give my imagination free rein while I’m composing a first draft; I then revise and edit the first draft three more times to arrive at the final manuscript.”
Racing through is actually killing two birds with one stone because you also race past all sorts of killer doubts, like that voice in your head that whispers you’re writing rubbish. You should leave the tinkering and improving for later, for a time when you do not require the same degree of passion to complete the job.
Persistence – an almost donkey-like persistence – should replace passion at that stage. Don’t make the mistake of riding the donkey before time though, while your brain is still alive and full of ideas, because the number of years you would ordinarily take to complete a first draft could then double, even triple. Your characters might turn wooden even as you flop over your writing desk in fatigue.
I once knew a brilliant writer who was far more of a perfectionist than was good for him. He spent two years writing his first chapter, polishing and re-polishing it, after which he died! If you’ve decided to write, write. If you haven’t fully decided, do a jig or plant roses – it’s fine by me if it’s fine by you but obviously it’s not fine by you, which is why you’re reading this book in the first place.
Maybe your imagination hasn’t shut down.
Maybe you have a great idea in your head but you’re finding it impossible to put down on paper. The energy in your head isn’t quite making it to your fingers. Or it does but turns lifeless as soon as it hits the page. Could your problem be that you’re afraid of not being skilled enough to translate your thoughts and ideas into words?
Think...did that happen to you when you were a child and a parent placed a box of crayons in front of you? Do you recall how quickly you began drawing something, anything, without a thought of what shape your drawing might take, of what anyone might think of you? Similarly, do you recall how you danced, sang, created fantasy worlds?
As adults we lose so much of that spontaneity, that confidence, that ability to have unadulterated fun. If you find yourself in Arctic Zone, retrace your steps, go back to your past and think about what put you in that zone. You don’t need a psychologist for this – we all know the battles we’ve fought with life – and it’s not as if strapping yourself into a time machine and juddering through your past will free you; it’s undoing the harm, dropping the baggage, bringing your passion and sense of fun back with you as you return that will.
There’s always a bit of schizophrenia involved in the act of creation. While one part of you must carry on unquestioningly in order to survive the day, make your way through traffic jams to a mind-numbing office each morning, pay your taxes, engage with people you might not like and so on, another part of you must hang on to lost worlds, ways of being and thinking that don’t always coincide with the former.
I refer to schizophrenia in the casual sense here although discordance in the extreme is not uncommon among writers (Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace). Throughout history, great writers are known to have been dysfunctional outside their writing, a result, perhaps, of going too deep into themselves. Graham Greene looked at it the other way round, though:
“Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in the human condition.”
Today, mercifully, the number of writers who manage to live sanely even as they nurture their ability to write spontaneously far outweighs those who succumb to the pressure.
A part of the self-fulfilling prophecy arises out of the mystique that surrounds the creative mind – the vision of a genius with crazy neurons darting through his brain or flashing on a screen, as in the film A Beautiful Mind – a mystique that is fast fading in the present-day world.
Increasingly, writers are hard-headed and efficient about their writing and their lives and the management of the two in tandem. If you want your writing to be sustainable, learn to live in both worlds and, to borrow a phrase from the London Underground, mind the gap.
Don’t take the hard-headedness to the extent that Stephen King advises, though. “What is talent?” he asks. “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.” The average Indian writer need pay no attention to this because, leave alone the check not bouncing, mostly he wonders whether it will arrive at all.
Excerpted with permission from Kissing the Demon: The Creative Writer’s Handbook, Amrita Kumar, HarperCollins India.